Environmental scientist leaves Cameroon conflict as part of Illinois Scholars at Risk program

Eric in field

Leaving behind a dangerous situation where more than 100 armed groups are fighting a separatist war, Eric Zama, an environmental scientist from Cameroon, continues his academic work in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) through the Illinois Scholars at Risk program.  

The conflict Zama left started in 2016 as a peaceful protest by English-speaking teachers and lawyers who were feeling marginalized. By 2018, armed groups escalated the situation, and now the government is fighting back.

“If you are a teacher in a government institution, you are a target. Each day on the way to the university, I made phone calls to find out if it’s safe to arrive. The armed groups are specifically targeting teachers because they feel like the teachers started the protests but then abandoned the cause. Government-owned educational institutions cannot safely operate,” he said.

Many of Zama’s former colleagues are still trying to teach, and he recently learned that five were kidnapped and kept in captivity for three days before being released for ransom.

“Myself, I’ve been captured two times,” he said.

“It’s not a good feeling when guys with guns say you will die if you don’t comply. Sometimes they mean it, but mostly they will keep you until they get the ransom money. There are so many groups fighting that the next week another group can catch you, and then the next week another group. It’s crazy.”

Zama arrived on the U. of I. campus in September 2023 and is using his expertise in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE) in Professor Richard Cooke’s lab on a research project to remove excess nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) from agricultural drainage water.

“In Cameroon, I was using biochar to improve soil and remove contaminants from water. Here I am using biochar to remove nitrogen and phosphorus from water. Illinois has been great. The program made the right match for me.”

Illinois is currently hosting several scholars at risk like Eric who applied through the umbrella programs Scholars at Risk (SAR) or the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund (IIE-SRF). These programs match scholars with participating universities.

Illinois faculty find the program mutually beneficial, allowing new perspectives to build on existing research.

“The arrival of Dr. Zama has added a new dimension to our work with biochar. Whereas we were previously focused on the development of designer biochar pellets for phosphorus removal from tile outflow, now we are also working on developing designer biochar for improving soil fertility and for carbon sequestration. These biochars will incorporate material from waste streams from rice and palm oil processing, and legumes such as inga and gliricidia. We also plan to build and test a low-cost kiln that is suitable for small-holder farmers in Cameroon and Sierra Leone,” said Cooke.

Hosting scholars benefits the wider community as well.

It’s one thing to read about these events online, but to meet people who have been affected by these tragedies builds global awareness and empathy,” said Mary Arends-Kuenning, acting associate dean for the ACES Office of International Programs and a member of the Illinois Scholars at Risk (ISAR) Program Committee.

Because the his ISAR visiting scholar appointment at ABE only runs for one year, Zama is concerned about what‘s to come.

“The conflict is not going away; it’s intensifying,” he said.

Visitors like Zama are supported financially with help from their host departments and funding from the Office of the Provost.  While the larger SAR organization attempts to find academic homes for scholars for as long as they face risks in their home countries, host institutions like the University of Illinois need to find mechanisms to support visitors during their stay. 

“Hosting visitors like Eric Zama is a win-win for the scholars facing risk and the university benefiting from their presence,” says Alex Winter-Nelson, interim associate dean of research for ACES. “We hope that funds can be identified from research projects, teaching assignments, or philanthropy to extend ISAR stays at Illinois.”